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By Ed Chan and Rob Espero
LONG BEACH, Calif. — It’s early in the NCAA men’s volleyball season, but already Long Beach State is the consensus pick to repeat. The 49ers have topped the AVCA poll every week, garnering all 16 first-place votes in the process.
And why not?
Long Beach State has started out 6-0 without dropping a set, including Saturday’s win over No. 7 UCLA, the same team it beat in five last May to win the NCAA title.
Long Beach finished 28-1 in 2018, its only setback a five-set loss to Hawai’i. Friday marks the team’s first home match of 2019 — against MPSF foe USC — and Long Beach will unfurl the team’s first NCAA championship banner since 1991.
What’s more, expectations are especially high this year, with the NCAA championships in the Pyramid May 2-4.
Long Beach returns six of seven starters from that team, including VolleyballMag.com’s co-players of the year setter Josh Tuaniga and TJ DeFalco, plus VBM’s second-team All-Americans Kyle Ensing at opposite and Nick Amado at middle.
The Beach lost only one starter from their 2018 championship run, undersized but high-jumping Norwegian outside Bjarne Huus.
“It sounds kind of crazy to say this, but the obvious one is Bjarn Huus, our outside hitter,” said coach Alan Knipe, in his 16th season with a 306-147 record. “He graduated, he’s gone. He did so much for us in terms of leadership and communication and group fight.
“And that’s no disrespect to what Louis (Richard, a 6 foot 3 senior outside) is doing, because he’s doing a great job. But that’s different. Probably the biggest difference is the collective group of seniors that we lost, and a lot of them didn’t play a lot last year, but they did such a good job with the leadership and the communication, and the grit of our program, and the way we represent ourselves and fight in practice every day, that even though we have a lot of the same faces on the court, there’s a big changeover in the gym.
“That’s what we see every day. It did feel very different for a while, and this group definitely has its own identity, and has emerged with different leaders, different guys on the second team, Louis is starting right now, it feels different and it should. It’s a totally different year and a totally different journey.”
This season’s lineup certainly possess experience as Tuaniga, DeFalco, Ensing, Amado, Richard and libero Jordan Molina are all seniors, with middle Simon Andersen a junior.
Tuaniga is one of the guys that has had to step up and lead in 2019. This year Tuaniga has contributed 11.22 assists/set, 1.72 digs/set, and .33 aces/set.
“Losing a leader like Bjarne is tough,” said Tuaniga, who is averaging 11.22 assists, 1.72 digs and .33 aces per set this season. “Losing a lot of leaders like seniors Matt Butler, Zach Gates, and Jason Willahan. All those guys that led us that last year. Now that they’re all gone, some of us older guys, we have to step up and take charge.
“Instead of being physical leaders on the court, we have to be a little bit more of an all-around leader. We have to take the reins. That’s been the change-up for us, and Louis is coming in, bringing a different style of game, Bjarne had a really strong passing and defensive foundation, while Louis brings a lot of good offensive stuff.”
Tuaniga was the MVP of last May’s NCAA Tournament.
“I try to be the all-around leader, leading both by example and leading on the court. This year I’ve been trying to push myself and be more vocal and be a more emotional leader,” Tuaniga said. “You have to take some pressure off of your passers, and that’s something that the middles, and the rest of our team, are trying to do. We have to carry that emotional load, the vocal load, so our passers can do what they do great, which is bring us off the net a little bit, and when we have service pressure, we can run some offense right back at them.”
Knipe praised his setter not only for his volleyball skills, but also for his leadership.
“It’s hard to explain Josh until you get to be with him for a long period of time. It’s really incredible what he does as a setter, especially in the medium systems situation to out of system situation. It’s incredible how good his location is,” said Knipe, who coached the USA to a fifth-place finish in the 2012 London Olympics.
“His ability to lead and his personality is so team first, it’s never about Josh. It’s always what he can do to make his teammates better. He may be one of the best people that I’ve ever been around in my life, never mind volleyball players. You add his talent as a kid, as a setter, but more importantly, as a person, he rubs off on our culture. He’s a massive part of our culture, of just loving his teammates, building people up, being a senior to the freshmen and bringing them along. He’s a huge part of it.”
Most of what happens for the Beach revolves around DeFalco, who was first selected to the USA men’s national team at 18. He has competed internationally since 2015, and was a member of the team that beat Serbia for the bronze medal at the FIVB World Championships in Turin, Italy last September.
“TJ means something big in every face of the game,” Knipe said. “He’s a wonderful volleyball player, he’s got a great arm, he passes great, he plays amazing defense, he’s got a big time serve well over 70 miles an hour, he’s one of the best wing blockers in the league, and he hits at every part of the court. He hits well at both pins, and out of the back row, and he’s not afraid of the big moment.
“He loves the big moment. He’s a massive part of our success and I’m sure glad he plays for us.
“When TJ’s in that mode where he’s super-external and he’s leading the entire group with exactly what’s going to happen on the next play and what needs to happen, you know he’s in a really good mind-set. He’s grown so much, and he’s like that a lot. His leadership and his ability to be external is a huge part of our success.”
Tuaniga met DeFalco at a public park in Temecula when they were 11, and they played together on the beach. The pair subsequently played club together at HBC and then at Huntington Beach High.
DeFalco is one of Tuaniga’s favorite targets, as DeFalco averages 3.61 kills per while hitting .383.
“TJ means everything to this team,” Tuaniga said. “He’s a physical leader, he’s an emotional leader, he’s a vocal leader, with the type of volleyball IQ that he has on the court, and just his overall personality, it’s so great for our team. Killing his ball, playing defense, blocking, he’s such an all-around player.”
Possibly the most underrated cog in the Long Beach machine is opposite Kyle Ensing. The 6-foot-7 senior is not only a force at the right pin, but also an excellent passer and defender. For example, his presence allowed the Beach to pass four players across in last Saturday’s match against UCLA, mitigating the damage of powerful servers like Micah Ma’a and Daenan Gyimah.
“We call him the drone because he flies all the time.” Tuaniga said. “He just flies up there. Physically he means everything. He takes up a big chunk of the court blocking, so we’re able to free up some of our other guys, and offensively, he’s just a phenom. I’m able to set him anywhere, and he’s quick and adaptable. He’s not only the physical leader, but he’s been helping us out vocally and emotionally as well. He’s a guy that just holds down the right side.”
Knipe knows Ensing is underrated.
“If Kyle was on any other team the last couple of years, people would be saying that he should have been the player of the year the last couple of years,” Knipe said. “He’s not a real external guy, it’s never about Kyle.
“You’re seeing this theme here about why the culture is so special, a 6-7 opposite that can play great defense, we can set him BICs, we can set him Ds, and set him on both sides, he bombs his jump serve, anytime you ask him to do anything, whether it’s the hardest thing you ask him to do in practice, or a tactical move you want him to make in a match, the answer is always the same, it’s ‘OK, coach.’ And he does it.
“He’s just one of the easiest guys to ever coach that is this talented. So when you put all three of those guys on this team, the leadership is pretty special because they do it with such a true heart to their teammates, an open heart of love, but most importantly, they do it with example. Every single day. These are three of the hardest working guys in our gym, even though they play at the highest level. It bleeds into the other guys in our gym.”
That’s a big reason why there doesn’t appear to be any complacency.
“Every day we have to reset,” Tuaniga said. “Remind ourselves that we strive to get one- to two-percent better every day. Sometimes you can have success and not respond. Our biggest thing is having success, and still responding as if we lost, as if there’s a lesson to be learned. That’s the main lesson that we’re trying to incorporate this year. There’s a lot of outside noise, ‘Hey, these guys are national champs, they’re great,’ all this noise that really doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, we’re trying to focus on our main goal, which is to get back and have more success.”
Ensing said the early season schedule — the first six matches on the road including an East Coast swing — will be invaluable.
“With teams throwing everything at you, we’re definitely on an upward trajectory,” Ensing said. “We’re just going to continue to get better and better.
“Coming off of last year, we gained a lot of confidence, and so far this year, we’ve gained even more confidence. We have guys in the gym that are firing serves and offense right back at us, and practices can be just a dogfight. I think that that’s just going to help us in the long run.”
Even their self-talk between points is focused on their improvement, DeFalco said.
“There’s a little bit of the same, just keeping going with the same talk prep in every point, but really, it’s not about the kind of sappy, ‘We’re OK, we’re fine.’ kind of talk, it’s ‘All right, this is what we’re going to do on this point.’ This is how we’re going to prep, this is what we’ll disguise, this is what we’re going to do on this play. It’s not ‘We’re OK, patting each other on the butt’ kind of stuff. It’s about understanding what we’re going through and how we need to adjust.
“We’re never going to feel like we’ve hit a plateau. We will always want more, and always strive to be better.”